At the onset of Ebola, many NGOs pulled staff from the country and shut their doors. As the disease spread, those who started stepping up to help were Sierra Leoneans themselves. As more families became quarantined and traveling became limited, resources quickly dwindled. Yusuf Johnny, OneVillage Partners’ Logistics Coordinator, recognized this challenge, and with the support from OneVillage Partners, he continuously stepped up to help two of our partner communities – Ngolahun and Pejehun.
On November 7, 2015, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free after 17 months of turmoil. The virus that took almost 4,000 lives leaving an estimate of 12,000 orphans in Sierra Leone alone was one of the worst the world has seen. Yusuf Johnny, a man who would never refer to himself as a hero, agreed to share what it was like to work in communities that were greatly affected by this terrible virus.
Q: When you went to visit Ngolahun and Pejehun, what compelled you to help the communities?
Y: When the outbreak started, I would go back to the communities to inform them on ways to prevent Ebola from spreading. I did this because they were apart of us and our organization could not function without them. It wasn’t until the government passed a law not to move from one town to the next that I knew these communities really need help. This created a challenge because the way they got food and resources was by going to the city and bringing them back to sell.
Q: When an individual was infected and became quarantined, what did that mean?
Y: If someone was infected, everyone in that compound could not move from one place to the next, not even to the next compound (house). The government would place a red and white rope around the compounds that were under quarantine so neighbors would know not to go there. When someone contacted the virus only a medical person was able to go in or out of the house for 21 days.
Q: How did you feel when you saw the rope?
Y: Shock and fear. Everyone was afraid of the virus; they [the government] had to do it so save others’ lives. In Pejehun, they did not believe Ebola was real at first. It spread so much because they kept interacting with one another. Eventually, there became a point in time where someone would want to shake hands with you, and you would say no.
Q: How did they make sure no one left?
Y: The government involved local authorities in this. The chief and a volunteer would walk around the village every day to see who was feeling sick. They also placed soldiers in infected areas across country to make sure no one left their homes. If someone was missing, they would find them and bring them back. A soldier would even escort you to use the latrines.
Q: How did these communities sustain themselves? And make money during this time?
Y: They could not think about money. People could only focus on how to survive. Later on, organizations tried supplying people with rice and soup because they were even not allowed to go to their farms.
Q: How was it for you to go in and out of these areas?
Y: It was difficult; I was not feeling good. It was hard to see people who had contacted the virus. One day, I went to a community and saw a woman on the ground next to her husband and child. They had all contacted the virus and died. I knew it was dangerous, but that is what inspired me to continue to go back there. So, when the government passed a law that declared only healthcare, big government, and military were allowed to move, and every town had to have a checkpoint I received a pass to visit the Ebola “hot spots.”
Q: What did you do when you went to Pejehun?
Y: I communicated and made a plea to the OVP country director there is a need to supply food because they were quarantined for a month. Once approved, I delivered and distributed food since they had no way to sustain themselves. One man in Pejehun said to me as I was delivering food, “We can’t visit each other but we need life to continue.”
Q: What was the process of distributing food to everyone?
Y: Before leaving Kenema I bought two packets of gloves and I always had hand sanitizer. I would then connect to Pujehun to say we were coming and do not want anyone around the store. I followed behind the loaded truck as we went through 10 checkpoints to the village. When the truck arrived, all families were told to stay indoors as the cargo was unloaded into the village storage room. Finally, there was someone who had a microphone that called out names for people to one-by-one carried their food back to their homes.
Q: Were you scared to interact with the people in Pejehun?
Y: Yes, but I was so cautious – there was a person assigned to be with me to deliver the food. If I wanted to talk with someone we stood far apart from one another and wouldn’t even shake hands. If I wanted to get information from someone in a quarantined house, I would have to get acceptance from the military to call someone inside the house. They would stay on the veranda while I stood outside the rope as we talked. It was extremely hard to see friends who are suffering and not greet them.
Q: What was going through your head when delivering food?
Y: I had an uneasy feeling because I knew it was dangerous. If you get in contact with the virus, you are done. One day, I was delivering food and a man came very close to discuss the amount of food because he said he needed more food. I knew members of his family had already contacted the virus and had to tell him to stand away from me. Two days later I was told he had passed away from the virus. I felt so bad, and I thank god for inspiring me to refuse his hug.
Q: If you knew it was dangerous, why would you keep going back to the communities?
Y: I knew it was dangerous, but I was confident that I could do it safely. I knew all the precautions I needed to take, so I had to do it to save people’s lives.
Q: After Ebola was out of the communities, how did the government leave the town? How did you and the community members go back to their normal lives?
Y: After the declaration, I was overjoyed because I knew I had faced the worst and I was free from Ebola.
It was challenge for the communities because there was lack of food to do farming. Paying school fees was difficult because they don’t have money. Even now some families struggle because they lost their family head. After the declaration people did not leave their home or go to other communities right away.
Q: How is Pejehun doing presently?
Y: Even now, families continue to struggle. Before the spread of Ebola, living conditions were much better. Their cocoa and rice farms were doing well. Because of the extended period of quarantine during Ebola their farms (which is the primary source of their income) was overgrown by forest, and they missed the opportunity to multiply rice seeds. People in Pejehun continue trying to get their lives back to the way it was before.
Q: Throughout all this, what was the hardest thing you had to do?
Y: The hardest part was when I came back to Kenema from the villages I would Isolate myself from my family. I did this because I wanted to make sure I would not infect my family. It was so unpleasant because I wanted to be around them and share food with my wife and kids, but I would not allow myself to be around them. I had to make sure I had no Ebola symptoms before going back to my family.